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Bill Thayer

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Discourse 4

This webpage reproduces one of the

Dio Chrysostom

published in the Loeb Classical Library, 1932

The text is in the public domain.

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and I believe it to be free of errors.
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Discourse 6

(Vol. I) Dio Chrysostom

 p235  The Fifth Discourse: A Libyan Myth

It has been suggested by some that the Libyan myth told in the fifth Discourse was one of a collection of myths ascribed to a certain Cybissus, a Libyan. Others discredit this view and hold that we have here one of the many stories told about Lamia, a fabulous she-monster, the daughter of Scylla, who devoured the flesh of children and young men. Hirzel, in his book Der Dialog, suggests that this myth was invented by Dio himself. The same myth seems to be referred to in the seventy-third section of the fourth Discourse, and von Arnim believes it formed an alternative ending for it and that Arethas (archbishop of Caesarea in Cappadocia in the first part of the tenth century A.D.) supplied it with an introduction of his own and made it a separate Discourse.

A similar story is told by Lucian in Vera Historia, II.76.

 p237  The Fifth Discourse:
A Libyan Myth

To develop a Libyan myth​1 and to fritter away one's industry upon such a subject is not a promising undertaking,​2 — indeed not, since these themes do not incline the most able men to imitation. Nevertheless, we must not refrain because of their contempt from dallying with such themes. For perhaps we ourselves should derive no small benefit if the myth in some way were given the right turn and became a parable of the real and the true. 2 Now when one employs his powers to such an end, he suggests to me the farmer's treatment of plant-life, when it is success­ful. Sometimes by grafting cultivated and fruit-bearing scions on wild and barren stocks and making them grow there, he changes a useless and unprofitable plant into a useful and profitable one. 3 And in just the same way, when some useful and edifying moral is engrafted on an unprofitable legend, the latter is saved from being a mere idle tale. Perhaps, too, those who composed these tales in the first place composed them for some such purpose, using allegory and metaphor for such as had the power to interpret them aright. 4 So much by way of prelude to my ode, as someone has said.​3 It still remains to recite  p239 and sing the ode itself, that is, the myth which tells to what we may best liken the human passions.

5 Once upon a time, so runs the story, there was a dangerous and savage species of animal whose main haunt was in the uninhabited regions of Libya. For that country even to this day seems to produce all sorts of living creatures, reptiles as well as other kinds. 6 Now among them was the species with which this story has to deal. It had a body that, in general, was a composite thing of the most incongruous parts, an utter monstrosity, and it used to roam as far as the Mediterranean and the Syrtis in search of food. 7 For it hunted both the beasts of prey such as the lion and the panther, even as those hunt the deer and the wild asses and the sheep, but took the most delight in catching men; and this is why it used to come near the settlements even as far as the Syrtis. 8 The Syrtis is an arm of the Mediterranean extending far inland, a three days' voyage, they say, for a boat unhindered in its course. But those who have once sailed into it find egress impossible; 9 for shoals, cross-currents, and long sand-bars extending a great distance out make the sea utterly impassable or troublesome. For the bed of the sea in these parts is not clean, but as the bottom is porous and sandy it lets the sea seep in, there being no solidity to it. 10 This, I presume, explains the existence there of the great sand-bars and dunes, which remind one of the similar condition created inland by the winds, though here, of course, it is due to the surf. The surrounding country is very much the same — a lonely stretch  p241 of sandy dunes. 11 However that may be, if shipwrecked mariners came inland or any Libyans were compelled to pass through or lost their way, the beasts would make their appearance and seize them.

12 The general character and appearance of their body were as follow: the face was that of a woman, a brief woman. The breast and bosom, and the neck, too, were extremely beautiful, the like of which no mortal maid or bride in the bloom of youth could claim, nor sculptor or painter will ever be able to reproduce. The complexion was of dazzling brightness, the glance of the eyes aroused affection and yearning in the souls of all that beheld. 13 The rest of the body was hard and protected by scales, and all the lower part was snake, ending in the snake's baleful head. Now the story does not say that these animals were winged like the sphinxes — nor that they, like them, spoke or made any sound whatever except a hissing noise such as dragons make, very shrill — but that they were the swiftest of all land creatures, so that no one could ever escape them. 14 And while they overcame other creatures by force, they used guile with man, giving them a glimpse of their bosom and breasts and at the same time they infatuated their victims by fixing their eyes upon them, and filled them with a passionate desire for intercourse. Then the men would approach them as they might women, while they on their part stood quite motionless, often dropping their eyes in the manner of a decorous woman. 15 But as soon as a man came within reach they seized him in their grasp; for they had clawlike hands too, which they had kept concealed at first. Then the serpent would promptly sting and kill  p243 him with his poison; and the dead body was devoured by the serpent and the rest of the beast together.

16 Now this myth, which has not been invented for a child's benefit to make it less rash and ungovernable, but for those whose folly is greater and more complete, may perhaps, now that we have brought it into this context,​4 be able to show adequately the character of the passions, that they are irrational and brutish and that, by holding out the enticement of some pleasure, they win over the foolish by guile and witchery and bring them to a most sad and pitiable end. 17 These things we should always keep before our eyes to deter us — even as those terrifying images deter children when they want food or play or anything else unseasonably — whenever we are in love with luxury, or money, or sensual indulgence, or fame, or any other pleasure, lest, coming too near to these unscrupulous passions, we be seized by them for the most shameful destruction and ruin conceivable. 18 And, indeed, to interpret the rest of the myth in this way would not be a difficult task for a clever man who perhaps has more time at his disposal than he should have.

For this is what they add to the myth. A certain king of Libya attempted to destroy this breed of animals, angered as he was at the destruction of his people. And he found that many of them had established themselves there, having taken possession of a dense wild wood beyond the Syrtis. 19 So he mustered a mighty host and found their dens. For they were not difficult to detect owing to the  p245 trails left by their serpents' tails and to the terrible stench that emanated from the dens. He thus surrounded them on all sides and hurled fire in upon them, so that, being cut off, they perished with their young. As for the Libyans, they fled with all haste from the region, resting neither night nor day, until, thinking they had gained a great start, they halted for rest beside a certain river. 20 But those of the creatures who had been away hunting, as soon as they learned of the destruction of their dens, pursued the army to the river, and finding some asleep and others exhausted by the toil, destroyed them one and all. 21 At that time, then, the task of destroying this brood was not completed by the king. Later, however — so the story continues — Heracles, while clearing the whole earth of wild beasts and tyrants, came to this place too, set it on fire, and when the creatures were escaping from the flames, slew with his club all that attacked him, and with his arrows those that tried to run away.

22 Now perhaps the myth is an allegory to show that, when the majority of men try to clear the trackless region of their souls, teeming with savage beasts, by rooting out and destroying the brood of lusts in the hope of then having got rid of them and escaped, and yet have not one this thoroughly, they are soon afterwards overwhelmed and destroyed by the remaining lusts; 23 but that Heracles, the son of Zeus and Alcmene, carried the task through to  p247 completion and made his own heart pure and gentle or tame; and that this is what is meant by his taming, that is, civilizing the earth.

24 Would you care, then, to have me gratify the younger people among you by giving a brief additional portion of the myth? For they believe so thoroughly in it and are so convinced of its truth as to assert that one of this brood appeared to the oracle of Ammon under the escort of a strong force of cavalry and archers. 25 They saw what seemed to be a woman, reclining on a pile of sand; she wore a sheepskin thrown over her head after the manner of the Libyan women, but displayed her bosom and breasts and lay with her head thrown back. They supposed that she was one of the professional harlots from some village who was on her way thither to join their company. 26 Accordingly, a certain two young men, greatly taken with her appearance, approached her, one outstripping the other. When the creature seized this one, she dragged him into a hole in the sand and devoured him. 27 The other young man, rushing past her, saw this and cried aloud so that the rest of the party came to his assistance. But the creature hurled itself at the young man with the snake part foremost, and after killing him disappeared with a hissing sound. They add that the body was found rotten and putrefying, and that the Libyans who were acting as guides permitted no one to touch the body lest all should perish.

The Loeb Editor's Notes:

1 See Fourth Discourse, § 73 f.

2 The wording and thought recall Plato, Phaedrus, 229D.

3 A reference to Plato's expression in his Laws 722D, τὰ δ’ ἔμπροσθεν ἦν πάντα ἡμῖν προοίμια νόμων, "all that precedes were preludes to our odes, or laws." Cicero (de Legibus 2.7.16) also refers to this expression.

4 That is, brought into this Discourse from some other source to point a moral. See Introduction and the Fourth Discourse, § 73.

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Page updated: 27 Oct 17